Charlottesville reveals dangerous new phase in right-wing assault on college campuses

The white supremacist rally this past weekend in Charlottesville, VA, which began on the campus of the University of Virginia, has raised concerns about similar activities happening at other colleges. Higher education media report college officials are growing concerned as white nationalist groups seek to hold similar events on more campuses throughout the U.S. These attempts represent an escalation of an ongoing right-wing assault on colleges.

Sarah Wasko / Media Matters

March on the campus of the University of Virginia started a weekend of white nationalist terror

UVA was caught unprepared when a mob of white supremacists marched through campus by torchlight. White nationalists rallied on campus at the University of Virginia (UVA) on Friday night, before the more highly publicized rally on Saturday in downtown Charlottesville. Rally organizers had contacted the university about holding a small event on campus, The Chronicle of Higher Education reported, but it ended up being much larger than university officials had been led to believe, involving an estimated “300 people with torches.” From the August 13 article:

Around 8:15 p.m. on Friday, [University of Virginia President Teresa] Sullivan was walking the university grounds, making small talk with the “Lawnies,” a few dozen fourth-year students who are selected for choice rooms at the center of campus that they can move into early. She was stopped by a resident assistant, who showed her a social-media post about a demonstration of white nationalists that was slated for 9 p.m. at the Rotunda.


The president would later learn that, sometime Friday afternoon, one of the organizers of the demonstration had contacted the university about coming to campus with a group. But Ms. Sullivan says that the organizer did not convey the scale of the proposed demonstration, and as a result the information was not even shared with her.

“Frankly it was considered minor enough I didn’t even know about it,” Ms. Sullivan said in an interview Sunday. “It was just that a small group of them wanted to meet and walk up in front of the Rotunda. The Rotunda is public space. What happened instead was that there were, by some estimates, 300 people with torches.”


“We would have prepared very differently if we had had any idea what this event was really going to be,” Ms. Sullivan said. “For starters, 20 people is not the same as 250 to 300 people. Having torches is not the same as not having torches. There’s just a lot of things that ended up being different about this. Walking up the street to the Rotunda is not the same as winding through our university and coming through the Academical Village to the Rotunda.” Eventually, the protesters numbered so many that Ms. Sullivan could see the torches flickering from her residence.

“What had been a march,” she says, “suddenly turned into a mob.”

Allen W. Groves, the dean of students, was on hand when the group arrived. As the situation quickly escalated, he reported to the president that a melee had broken out and that he had been struck by a torch that was hurled like a spear.

“I’m hurt,” the president recalls him telling her. “My arm is bleeding.”

“He tried to get the students out of there,” Ms. Sullivan continues, “but by this time there was pepper spray and so on. Our students and community members, all they had was a sign. They weren’t armed at all.” [The Chronicle of Higher Education, 8/13/17]

UVA rally continued a pattern of escalating white supremacist activity on college campuses

Rise in white supremacist activity on campuses: From fliers, to rallies, to open violence. Inside Higher Ed detailed the worrying rise in white supremacist activity on campuses over the past year, which began in a quiet but menacing way. According to the article, though “the last academic year saw more of a visible white power movement on campus than ever before,” a lot of the activity “came in the form of racist posters and leaflets that appeared on campuses, most of the time anonymously and without any link to a person on campus.” University officials across the country are concerned that what first manifested as a profusion of racist posters and leaflets may be taking an even darker turn. From the August 14 report:

The events in Charlottesville this weekend have worried educators nationwide.

But they are not typical of how white supremacists are turning up on campus. The last academic year saw more of a visible white power movement on campus than ever before, according to the Anti-Defamation League and others. Much of the activity, however, came in the form of racist posters and leaflets that appeared on campuses, most of the time anonymously and without any link to a person on campus.

The last year also saw, however, a campaign by the National Policy Institute to hold events on campus -- and that effort may be picking up this fall. The institution describes itself as committed to promoting “the heritage, identity and future of people of European descent.” The leader of the group, Richard Spencer, is known for “Hail Trump” rhetoric that prompts his supporters to respond with Nazi salutes. [Inside Higher Ed, 8/14/17]

Trinity Washington University president: Colleges are targets because of the ideals they represent. According to the Chronicle, “The chaos in Charlottesville added a dangerous element to what was already expected to be a contentious climate when students return to college campuses this fall.” Patricia McGuire, president of Trinity Washington University, told the Chronicle that colleges are natural targets for white supremacists because they promote ideals of equality and liberal democracy. From the August 12 article:

Patricia A. McGuire, president of Trinity Washington University, said the actions by the white-supremacist groups represented a natural continuation of months of provocations by such organizations.

“This is the threat we’ve been seeing all along just metastasized into the worst possible situation,” she said Saturday evening. “We’ve seen the alt-right trying to provoke campuses, trying to incite students, trying to corrupt higher education’s ideal of freedom of speech and pushing it to the very edge of the concept,” she said.

College campuses are obvious targets for such groups because they promote the ideals of universal equality and liberal democracy, Ms. McGuire said. The white supremacists, however, are promoting a “we versus they” ideology, and academe is part of the “they."


Campus leaders, instead, should prepare their institutions, Ms. McGuire said, not against controversial speech and microaggressions, but against the real possibility of physical confrontations and violence. [The Chronicle of Higher Education, 8/12/17]

Colleges prepare for the potential of violent white supremacists on campus

Colleges consider whether to allow white nationalist groups on campus, and how to prepare for them. The Chronicle reported that campus security experts and first amendment scholars are wrestling with how to deal with requests from white supremacist groups to come to campus, and how to plan for the possibility of violence. From the August 15 article:

Sue Riseling, executive director of the International Association of Campus Law Enforcement Administrators, said her organization plans new training sessions for its members in response to the mayhem in Charlottesville. The training sessions, she says, will “talk directly about when protests go violent.”

Colleges “should be planning now to deal with those things that cannot be anticipated,” and “these conversations need to happen now, and not in the heat of the moment,” she says.


Neal H. Hutchens, a professor of higher education at the University of Mississippi and lawyer who is working on a book on the First Amendment and higher education, thinks the circumstances of the deadly violence in Charlottesville could change the ways courts and campus leaders think about free-speech and safety issues.

“Usually under the First Amendment it’s really hard to ban something,” he said. But now, it seems white-supremacist groups are specifically targeting universities and acting as if they’re “really more interested in causing destruction,” he said. That means “we’re getting into some new waters.” [The Chronicle of Higher Education, 8/15/17]

White nationalists seek to re-enact UVA rally on other campuses; university leaders say no

Two universities cancel events featuring white nationalist Richard Spencer over safety concerns. Richard Spencer, a prominent white nationalist leader who attended the Charlottesville rally, had been planning to speak at events on September 11 at Texas A&M University and on September 12 at the University of Florida. According to the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, the organizer of the A&M event, Preston Wiginton, announced it with a press release headlined “Today Charlottesville Tomorrow Texas A&M,” and described it as a “White Lives Matter” rally. This week, A&M System Chancellor John Sharp and University of Florida President Kent Fuchs announced that the events planned for their campuses had been cancelled. Both leaders specifically cited safety concerns as the reason, according to the Austin-American Statesman and Inside Higher Ed. The New York Times reported that the organizer of the Florida event plans to file suit over the cancellation. Many universities are unsure how to balance free-speech concerns with the potential for violent activities by white supremacists. The Texas Tribune reported on a previous Spencer speech at A&M:

“White supremacists keep coming to our campus thinking we’re going to support them,” said Adam Key, a doctoral student at A&M and the organizer of the counterprotest [of the cancelled rally]. “Just like the last time they showed up, we want to demonstrate as clearly as we can that their ideas are not welcome here.”

The last time was in December, when Spencer gave a speech to about 400 people at A&M's Memorial Student Center. That night, the campus seemed constantly on the brink of boiling over. Spencer's talk was interrupted repeatedly with shouting, pushing and shoving among people in the crowd.

Outside, thousands of people protested, leading the Texas Department of Public Safety to clear A&M’s Memorial Student Center out of safety concerns. [Fort Worth Star-Telegram, 8/14/17, The Texas Tribune, 8/13/17, Inside Higher Ed, 8/15/17, Inside Higher Ed, 8/16/17, Austin American-Statesman, 8/14/17, The Miami Herald, 8/14/17, The New York Times, 8/16/17 ]

White nationalists targeting of college campuses is an escalation of ongoing right-wing attacks on higher education

Milo Yiannopoulos set the example of targeting colleges.The actions of white supremacists in and around the University of Virginia campus represent a troubling expansion of a broader right-wing assault on colleges. Media Matters has reported on a variety of ways that right-wing groups target universities.The provocative rally at UVA echoes the deliberately offensive campus tours of right-wing provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos, a former editor of the right-wing website Breitbart. The tour featured “slur-filled diatribe[s] that relied on recycled right-wing attacks on diversity and political correctness,” as Media Matters reported last year. Southern Poverty Law Center staffer Lecia Brooks explained to USA Today this week that “part of [hate groups'] strategy is to go to places that they think are liberal and progressive, especially in terms of college campuses, to know that they’ll get students upset.” [Media Matters, 12/16/16, 10/25/16; USA Today, 8/15/17].

The right wing has been waging an assault on universities in recent years. Conservative dark money groups have increasingly targeted colleges and universities, trying to push conservative ideas onto campuses, while also seeking to delegitimize higher education. These right-wing foundations and hate groups have funded an “echo chamber” of fake grassroots organizations like Campus Reform and Professor Watchlist that specifically target professors who “advance leftist propaganda in the classroom.” Meanwhile, conservative media depict colleges as places where students are brainwashed and radicalized. This framing helps explain a sharp shift in Republican voters' views on higher education. Most Republicans now see colleges as having a “negative effect on the way things are going in the country.” [Media Matters, 3/29/17, 12/2/16, 7/13/17]